Tollway leaders still pushing forward on Route 53 study

 
 
Updated 5/26/2016 5:52 PM
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  • Daily Herald File PhotoRoute 53 ends in Cook County, but controversy over whether to extend it doesn't.

    Daily Herald File PhotoRoute 53 ends in Cook County, but controversy over whether to extend it doesn't.

Illinois tollway leaders gave no indication Thursday they would reverse a decision to spend $40 million to $50 million on a feasibility study of extending Route 53 in Lake County but promised to talk over the controversy soon.

A roomful of emotional proponents and detractors of the project descended on the agency after Lake County Chairman Aaron Lawlor's surprise pullout May 16 and Chairman Bob Schillerstrom's pledge to move ahead with an environmental impact study.

"In the near future, we will be having discussions on determining the tollway's next steps as related to the EIS and transportation needs in Lake County," Schillerstrom said of the study. The tollway has spent about $3.2 million so far on planning the road.

Lawlor, a former cheerleader for expansion, said the vision of an environmentally friendly parkway expanding Route 53 north to Route 120 wasn't financially or politically sustainable.

The proposed four-lane, 45 mph parkway was intended to fix gridlock in Lake County and promote economic development, but it was dogged by a shortfall of at least $1.9 billion. Tollway Director James Sweeney backed the project Thursday, saying traffic in Lake County was "only going to get worse and it's a disaster right now. It's been put off too long, frankly."

Director and Elk Grove Mayor Craig Johnson said he was still comfortable with his vote in favor of the study last fall but added "I want to have a good discussion with my fellow directors" about the issue.

A fragile consensus among Lake County leaders to build the road fell apart in the last year, especially with plans to raise tolls and institute a gas tax to subsidize the road.

Features such as wildlife crossings intended to preserve natural areas added to the parkway's cost. And while some critics said high tolls and low speeds would keep drivers away, others said the environmentally friendly design didn't go far enough.

"Route 53 is not a dream, it's a nightmare -- wake us up and stop torturing us. This project should not be built," said former tollway board director and Waukegan mayor Bill Morris.

"Don't kid yourself. If you continue down this path you are setting the stage for a major tax and toll increase," he said.

Several Lake County Board members distanced themselves from Lawlor and implored the tollway to carry on with the environmental study.

"The Lake County Board is on record as supporting the EIS," board member Bonnie Thomson Carter said. "(Lawlor's) questions are legitimate but they provide more reason to complete the EIS."

The project also would include improvements to Route 120 and without those "road congestion will stifle economic development," she said.

County board member Sid Mathias said Lawlor "speaks individually," not for the entire county.

"If one person in Lake County changes his mind, it doesn't mean there is a new consensus. The overwhelming consensus is that we need Route 53 (extended)," he said.

Meanwhile a number of municipal officials and environmental groups warned that the construction would cause irreparable harm to natural areas.

"It will forever destroy ecosystems," Hawthorn Woods Community Development Director Michael Cassata said.

Often invoked but absent was Gov. Bruce Rauner, who appointed a new tollway administration. He has not commented on the controversy.

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